What are the main differences between large public universities and small liberal arts colleges?

College Search

Our counselors answered:

What are the main differences between large public universities and small liberal arts colleges?

Reecy Aresty
College Admissions/Financial Aid Expert & Author Payless For College, Inc.

What are the main differences between large public universities and small liberal arts colleges?

Public schools will traditionally have stricter guidelines on financial aid, have many more day students, less professors & more teaching assistants. You could wind up being lost in the shuffle. In FL as in many other states, it could take you 5 or more years to graduate. There's also less flexibility in course structure. Private schools can offer whatever they want in financial aid, and many have huge endowments and can attract the best professors in various fields. The student retention rate is much higher, and most students are assured of completing 120 credits in 4 years or less. What really matters is that the school is right for you - big or small, urban or rural Big 10 or smallest 100, you have your criteria & that's all that matters. After you visit & talk to current & past students, you'll have a better idea of just what to expect.

Benjamin Caldarelli
Partner Princeton College Consulting, LLC

What are the main differences between large public universities and small liberal arts colleges?

Typically, besides obviously being on a smaller scale, liberal arts colleges are more dedicated to educating undergraduates. The traditional liberal arts colleges usually do not include professional or technical majors such as business or engineering.

Nancy Milne
Owner Milne Collegiate Consulting

What are the main differences between large public universities and small liberal arts colleges?

The difference between large and small colleges comes down to numbers. Whether it is the size of the lecture halls, classes, number of professors vs. TAs you have contact with, opportunities to work in research/labs/internships as an undergrad. Sports and the variety of extracurricular activities will generally be more predominant at large public schools. At a university there is a greater emphasis on a specific major rather than just a liberal arts education. I always point out that you can make a BIG place smaller (i.e. Honors College), but you can't always make a small place feel larger.

Rebecca Joseph
Executive Director & Founder getmetocollege.org

What are the main differences between large public universities and small liberal arts colleges?

The main difference is cost and access to resources. Large public universities, especially for in-state students, are much more affordable. They come with risks during these tough economic times---larger class sizes, limited classes, overwhelmed professors and campus workers, and tuition increases each year. At larger public universities, students must be independent. They need to find communities right away and establish connections as many kids live off campus. I recommend joining a frat or major activity right away. At small liberal arts colleges, the campuses make kids feel at home with smaller class sizes, dorms that kids live in for 2-4 years, and all kinds of resources. Professors at small liberal arts colleges focus even more on undergraduates.

Katie Parks
Former Admissions Counselor

What are the main differences between large public universities and small liberal arts colleges?

The first main difference is the cost. If you are attending a large, state school, chances are your cost for tuition and room and board will be significantly lower than if you were attending a small liberal arts school. The reasoning is simple, large public universities get financial support not only from alumni, students and commercial partners, but from the government as well. Small liberal arts colleges must rely heavily on alumni donations and student tuition and fee money to run their school, thus increasing the need for tuition to be higher. Another big difference is class size. Although as a senior in either case you will have small classes, with lots of one on one time with faculty members, there is a big difference in the class sizes you will see in these two schools as a freshman. Large public schools will often offer classes with up to 100 students, in large lecture halls, taught by TAs (teaching assistants who are graduate students) for introductory classes. Small liberal arts schools pride themselves on keeping classes small, allowing student more individual attention from their teacher. Curriculum also has something to do with it. While you can get a great education that will land you your dream career at either school, there are some differences to be aware of. Liberal Arts schools tout seminar-style classes, based on discussions and student dialogue. They provide a student with a well-rounded education focused on critical thinking, global awareness, and practical learning. (Which makes you marketable for a wide range of career opportunities.) Large schools also have these style classes, but they have a more limited general education curriculum and wider range of major classes to choose from. It is also true that larger schools will have a wider variety of major and degree programs, so if you are hoping to study something very specific, a larger school may be able to accommodate your needs better. Then there’s employer visibility. Large schools attract a lot of employers. It’s just a fact. With a much larger pool of students to recruit from, companies tend to focus their recruiting seasons on larger schools. Larger schools often come equipped with more facility space too, so on-campus interviewing is a perk of recruiting from a large institution. And with corporate partnerships and state-sponsored internships housed at these schools, students will have a lot of opportunities to get their resume in front of employers. Smaller schools will still attract employers, and internships are still a vital part of a liberal arts education, they just often don’t hold the perks associated with a larger career center, and students may be required to do more leg-work. However, you are more likely to stand out to an employer if you are seeking out an internship or are able to showcase yourself better at a job fair (easier to do in a crowd of 500 rather than 5,000), which a small liberal arts school allows. Plus, with smaller schools, faculty and staff are more aware of each student’s career aspirations and often can provide students additional assistance finding internships or fellowships, because they have a personal connection with the student. (Since classes are smaller and faculty can spend more time working individually with students.) The last main difference is student life. These two schools offer different campus environments. Both will have athletics and student clubs and dining options, but everything at the large, public school will be on a grander scale. Sports games will attracts tens of thousands of students and alumni, adding great school spirit to a student body and passion for a school, but clogging traffic and creating a tailgating climate on the weekends. There will be hundreds of clubs to choose from, allowing students to follow any interest they could dream up, but it will be harder to crack in to a leadership role in these groups. Smaller schools will have lots of clubs and organizations to join with less competition for leadership roles, but there won’t be the wide range of clubs to join and you may have to actually start a club to participate in the one you want. Sports are still a vital part of a small school, but they are not the main revenue-generating force of a school, meaning facilities will be smaller and the attention-grabbing headlines fewer. You will also find your social life could be very different between the two schools, as you will be a little fish in a big pond at the larger schools, and a big fish in a little pond at smaller schools. So you may be more recognizable at a smaller school, and have an easier time retaining your anonymity at a large school. While you can see there are a lot of differences between large and small schools, it is important to note that both types will give you a great education, with lots of career opportunities, and a college experience you’ll never forget. While they are different from each other, neither option is better than another. It really is up to you to figure out which type of campus works well for you.

Jessica Brondo
Founder and CEO The Edge in College Prep

What are the main differences between large public universities and small liberal arts colleges?

Large public universities are likely to have more opportunities for you in terms of social life, extracurriculars, and classes. More people means more potential friends, more clubs to join, and probably more classes to take. Small liberal arts colleges provide the main benefit of being able to focus more on the well-being of their students because there are fewer, meaning you will get more time with professors, counselors, whatever you need. Small schools are better for students who know what they want, as they are likely to pick a school tailored to fit them. They won't want for friends, classes or activities even in a smaller setting because it fits their personality. Students who are still figuring out what they want to study, who they want to be, and what they want to do will have more options available to discover at a larger university.

Ellen erichards@ellened.com
Owner Ellen Richards Admissions Consulting

What are the main differences between large public universities and small liberal arts colleges?

There are best differences between large and public universities and small liberal arts colleges that students should definitely research and be aware of before they dive into the college admissions application process. Small liberal arts colleges will often give students practically 100% access to their professor. This becomes an invaluable resource for students for the future because (1) they’ve learn how to interact with accomplish professionals within their field (2) they have an excellent resource to seek advice on their future careers and goals as well as basic assignments and how to best perform at the level of a scholar and (3) the classes are smaller and often a professor will know students by name. Anyone who does not want to be anonymous and who appreciates that essentially they are spending a significant amount of money to attend to college most likely will highly value the accessibility of professors and the communication that goes on within the classroom (because they have you as student) and the opportunity to learn from other people experiences. At large public university (1) students will be more a face in the crowd, (2) have the opportunity to easily escape from the oversight of what may seem to them like nosy professors and (3) never feel an obligation to purge any kind of relationship with their professor. For some students this type of college experience works very well because they can interact with their TA only and not the subject to the judgement of professors. In addition, they would have access to more resources in general although that is not necessarily true. Any student who attends a large university at some point will run in to a challenge that in tails a lot of bureaucracy or red tape and feel as though their voice is not being heard. At small liberal arts colleges, student rarely feels ignored or undervalued as a member of the community.